Freedom of Religion Lawsuit Filed Against California Education System for Forcing Students To Chant Aztec Prayers

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Freedom of religion in the classroom: teacher teaching students

The Thomas More Society filed a freedom of religion lawsuit against the State of California on behalf of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation for its statewide curriculum that requires students to pray to Aztec gods. On September 24, 2021, the Thomas More Society filed an injunction against the California Department of Education and other defendants with the California Superior Court.

According to Frank Xu, head of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, including Aztec and Yoruba prayers in the curriculum “clearly constitutes an unlawful government preference toward a particular religious practice.”

Attorneys requested in the filing that the Court issue a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Aztec Prayer (i.e., the “In Lak Ech Affirmation”) or the “Ashe” chant (i.e., the “Ashe Affirmation) from being forced in California public schools and instructing the California Education System to direct teachers not to use the prayers until further notice.

Freedom Of Religion And The First Amendment

“Our clients are not opposed to students learning about diverse cultures and religions, including Aztec practices,” stated Paul Jonna, partner at LiMandri & Jonna LLP and Special Counsel to the Thomas More Society. “But the California State Board of Education’s approved Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum goes far beyond that by directing students to pray to Aztec deities. This portion of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is not only offensive, but blatantly unconstitutional.”

The Aztec prayers are included in a portion of the curriculum titled “Affirmation, Chants, and Energizers.” Among these is the “In Lak Ech Affirmation,” in which five Aztec deities are invoked, their might acknowledged, their assistance requested, and their gratitude expressed. Additionally, the curriculum incorporates the Yoruba religion’s Ashe Prayer. Yoruba is an ancient pagan philosophy that serves as the foundation for a number of pagan faiths, including santeria and Haitian vodou, or voodoo.

How Can Cultural Appropriation Accidentally Attack Freedom Of Religion?

Alan Sandstrom, Ph.D., a sociocultural anthropologist and academic with knowledge in the Aztec and other Mesoamerican peoples’ culture, religion, and ritual, has submitted a declaration to the court in favor of an injunction forbidding the inclusion of these prayers on the basis of religious freedom.

“I am very much in favor of the Model Curriculum’s stated goals. However, I think its treatment of Mesoamerican culture in the ‘In Lak Ech’ affirmation is a mistake,” Sandstrom wrote. “A wealth of information about the Aztec culture, including religion and ethics, is available and can be taught in schools. However, the ‘In Lak Ech’ affirmation bypasses this and uses Aztec or Aztlan religious practice to convey a secondary modern message. In my view, there is no sound reason to invent an Aztec chant or to co-opt the elements of Aztec culture in this way. Doing so undermines genuine understanding and appreciation of these cultures.”

Dr. Sandstrom also stated that attacking students’ freedom of religion by forcing them to engage in Aztec prayers defeats the purpose of education, writing, “I strongly believe that children can appropriately be taught about religion, and be taught to respect people of different faiths. However, I do not see the ‘In Lak Ech’ affirmation as achieving that goal in an appropriate way. The affirmation as presented amounts to a religious activity that I think has no place in a public school.”

According to the filing against California’s education officials, the high court stated that “children, as they become aware of the religious differences of our people, should be made to understand the true character of the public school’s religious neutrality,” and that “the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer.”

– John Paluska, CNJ Staff

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